Going off track

Published April 16, 2024

LIKE many other state-owned enterprises in the country, Pakistan Railways is unable to deliver, while haemorrhaging public funds by the billions. Along with an unenviable safety and performance record, PR’s infrastructure is struggling to keep up. As pointed out in a recent report in this paper, the Railways is operating around 100 locomotives that have completed their operational life, with some of these engines dating back five decades. Considering the fragile state of the economy, PR does not have the funds to replace these ageing engines, while it has to incur heavy costs on their maintenance. This also creates safety issues due to the frequent faults the locomotives develop.

The problem of ageing engines is just one part of the PR’s long saga of neglect and lack of performance. Ill-maintained tracks and equipment, as well as an inefficient workforce, contribute to the Railways’ woes. As a study published by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics put it, the PR’s “19th-century infrastructure still grapples with the challenges of the 21st century”. Several reform plans have been floated, but as is the norm in Pakistan, these initiatives have been thwarted by official and bureaucratic lethargy, as well as resistance from within the PR’s workforce. Privatisation, or at least a public-private partnership, is one option, where passenger and freight services are operated by private parties, while the state maintains and regulates infrastructure. Some private train services have been started, and have maintained a decent standard of service delivery. Also crucial to the Railways’ revival is the realisation of the multibillion-dollar ML-1 project under CPEC. This key scheme has also failed to get off the ground, primarily due to funding constraints, though the current administration hopes to seal the deal with China soon. While overhauling PR is a massive undertaking, a safe and efficient rail network is essential for economic growth, with improved performance in both the freight and passenger sectors.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2024

Opinion

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